Virgo's Vigilantes Chapter Two, Part 1
If you didn't read Chapter 1 of Virgo's Vigilantes, state HERE. This is Chapter Two, in multiple parts.
Here's Part 1:
(Remember, Virgo's Vigilantes comes out on October 26th!)
2 - Underworld, Undisclosed
Can a homecoming be considered a homecoming if you never actually see home? These are the things you think about when you have too much time on your hands.
Straight from the Council chamber, I was escorted by a squad of guards. I'm not being hyperbolic. When I say a squad, I mean a squad. It wasn't two or three. They didn't even add the pair at the chamber door. No, after Michael concluded the meeting, a guard opened the side door as the Founders prepared to leave. No less than fifteen guards lowered long spears, tips burning with Hellfire, as they surrounded me.
That didn't do much for my mother, who crumbled against my father and cried quietly. She only pulled her head away from his chest long enough to let me see her tear–stained face as she watched me be marched out.
"We've got you, Zeke," Bilba said as I passed.
Ralrek gave me an affirmative nod.
Out of the chamber, I was taken down five flights of stairs. Lower and lower. Only the guards' armor clinking accompanied my spiraling thoughts.
The Council was doing whatever they could to make sure I couldn't share the truth—with a capital 'T'.
Shoving me into a prison until my trial by combat prevented me from letting the rest of Hell know one of its Founders thought it was okay to curse other families and to attempt to kill an Abandoned. Each step lower, I found myself regretting the times I trusted Seraph enough to share anything with her. Those freely–spoken words were back, chomping bites like a hellhound coming off a diet. Seraph had gotten close after earning my trust, and I thought she had done so because she saw something in me and was giving me a chance the others on the Council didn't seem interested in. But it had been a ploy to get a better understanding of who I was and what I was capable of. With each step deeper into the prison, I realized the Council had been playing the long game because they understood my nature better than they ever communicated. Their concern was not for me, but for what Hell's Segregate could do to hinder their ambitions.
We reached a new landing, and a guard stepped forward, unlocking and pulling open a thick door through which only a small barred slat was cut. Heavy security. He stepped aside, allowing half the contingent to step through while the others remained behind me.
"Move," one barked.
I stepped into a long hallway that stretched into the darkness below, illuminated by sporadically placed torches that burned with the azure of Hellfire.
"Nice place you've got here," I said to the guard behind me.
He had the good humor to snicker.
This wasn't his fault. It wasn't the fault of any of them. They were just like any other demon, doing the Council's bidding any time the Council bid. No thinking, no questioning. Such was their grip on the residents of this realm.
Being Hell's only resident without magic had always been a blessing, one that created incalculable headaches and even more lonely nights. Most weren't interested in associating with a demon like me. When Aries gifted Creed during my first mission, I thought he had given me a further blessing, for all the trouble the halberd was. Over time, though, I discovered Creed caused more problems for the Council than for me. In their chambers, my mind was untouchable. For the bonus, no matter how powerful they were, the Founders couldn't take it from me either. No one could without special equipment, and even then, that was tricky. My mind and body, alive because of Aries's gift.
I glanced over my shoulder, squinting, to find which guard spoke the one–word comment. Maybe a friend? An ally, even?
But they looked straight ahead, their gazes only flicking at me after I turned.
"Keep moving," one said. He had a huge bend in the middle of his nose. He must have seen his share of fists up too close.
"What did you say?" I asked the ugly guard.
"No one said nothing," a less ugly guard said. He lifted the butt of his spear and used the flat end to press against my lower back. "Move."
Ahead, a guard stopped by a cell door. It was the first cell I'd seen in the hallway. I was getting more privacy than anyone ever wanted.
His keys jingled as he searched out the lock, before cranking. It sounded like large stones smacked together in a cavern. Under my feet, the stone vibrated slightly, as if an enormous mechanism underneath the floor had been freed. My skin prickled.
The forward contingent stepped into the cell. I followed, turning to see the second contingent spreading in an inverted V-shape at the door, one guard inside, two standing behind him, three behind him. The squad was making sure I stayed put.
"Put your halberd in the rack," the one in front of the inverted-V said, lifting the spear and pointing toward the wall.
I turned to see two blue-burning torches bordering tarnished silver clamps bolted to the wall. The cell wasn't atrociously damp, but it wasn't the most arid either. How long before I found myself in the same condition down here?
"What if I don't want to?" I asked.
He stared dumbly, mouth hanging open. "I—well, you need to."
I raised an eyebrow. "Need to?"
"Well… yes, of course," he said.
"Well—because—you're—you're a prisoner," he said.
"I don't really feel like making a prisoner of my halberd," I said, tapping Creed with my palm. "He hasn't done anything to anyone. But then again." I waved at my new surroundings. "Neither have I and look where it landed me. Almost as if the Council is trying to oppress me and what I might have to say." I patted Creed, which was noticeably inactive. "I think I'd like to keep him by my side. For company, you understand? Don't want to get too lonely."
"Just do what he asked," a guard from the back rank said.
I stared at the demon. He stared at me. Neither of us flinched. Someone's armor jingled.
"Trust," a voice said, intimately close.
The guards, those in the second contingent by the cell door, and the first along the wall near the brackets, watched. None had spoken.
I was clearly losing my mind, and I just stepped into this cell. Whatever rift Azazel created, its taint had dug deep into my gray matter. For a flash of a second, I hoped that hadn't been his intent all along, that he hadn't tricked me, just as Seraph had before him. It wasn't unconscionable to think that I had fallen for Azazel's "harmless," ancient personality. Like chicken wings and beer, I might be damned for all eternity to be partnered with a lack of trust. The way things were working out, I'd have plenty of time to reflect on my reasons for flickering doubt in the goateed Founder.
Had I even been played by him? Him giving me the coordinates to the Horn, an item I was supposed to find now, appeared farcical. Of course he would compel me to trust him by asking for help in stopping the growing force that was Seraph. It opened me to the possibility that I did have a friend on the Council, someone I could lean on, but it would also convince me to step through the rift. Though I could detect magic before spells were cast, that didn't mean I understood the nature of the spells. Detecting the magic of a rift was one thing. Understanding what I was subjecting myself to was another entirely. Azazel could have easily tainted me while keeping me clueless. Not until I started hearing things.
Oh joy, when are the hallucinations coming?
"Look, we're just doing our jobs," the guard from the back rank said, returning my attention to the here and now. "We don't want trouble, but I was told to remind you that you're in prison while your family and friends are up there." He jerked his head toward the ceiling. "We are the messengers, but you know what that means. Right?"
It was a tried-and-true tactic of the Council, to always threaten the life, limb, and safety of loved ones to get me to comply. And it always worked. Like now.
"Fine." I yanked Creed free.
The guards near the wall jumped. One of the younger incubi shifted his spear as if ready to attack.
"Careful there." I wagged the collapsed halberd in his direction. "This thing has a mind of its own and, for the life of me, I can't get it to listen. It's got quite an attitude, and I can't be responsible if it decides it doesn't like your face and wants to free you of it."
The young incubus looked at his peers. One with a permanent shadow of a mustache titled his head up. The younger guard raised his spear tip and stood at attention.
I smiled as I stepped past him, lifting Creed. "Sorry, old buddy."
The halberd jiggled, barely perceptible as I set it in the bracket.
"Clamp it shut. We know we can't touch that blessed thing," the guard outside the cell—really brave of him—said.
When I closed the clamps, the tension melted from the guards. The one in the back rank giving orders smiled. "Thank you for complying."
The guards parted at the cell door, allowing the contingent stationed inside to march out. They waited as the last one locked me inside.
The order-giver hung back as the squad formed into two columns, aimed back down the hall. "Chow will be brought in a few hours. Let's go, boys."
By the time I found the most comfortable place to sit—which was an accomplishment considering the entire cell was nothing but black brimstone with one small, goat-hair rug—the clinking of armor had faded behind the thick outer door.
The world got very quiet, very hastily.
Meals came, if you could consider the slop I was served food. Funny, how instantaneously culinary snobbishness fades when the only meals you eat are prison meals. I lost track of how many I'd eaten at around twenty-five. After that, everything tasted the same, and the days of dark solitude took a mounting toll. I passed the time thinking about Cancer and even talking to her memory from time to time. It never spoke back. I did laps around the cell, counting the steps each time. Eighteen-by-twelve Zeke-sized steps, in case you were wondering. I did more pushups than sit-ups, since the stone floor raked my spine any time I did a short burst of core work. I even entertained thoughts of working on some of the fighting techniques Leo taught me, but I looked ridiculous—yes, even though I was alone—fighting the air. I even used my senses against the brackets holding my halberd and practiced sending them through the stone walls. I never got much in the way of feedback.
No matter what I did to occupy myself, the long days of solitary imprisonment were tough.
The Council was trying to break me, that much I understood. But I'd also fooled myself into thinking I would only be in prison for a matter of hours. Maybe a day or two at the most. Turns out, I was wrong.
Without a line of sight to the outside world, I had no idea how many days passed, but consuming more than two dozen terrible prison meals implied I had been in the cell for well over a week. Once, I asked a guard and he, almost apologetically, told me he was not allowed to tell me. Either way, expediency of death seemed less important with each passing meal. So much for Seraph being in a hurry to have my head chopped off.
The lack of other prisoners didn't help. The last time I was locked behind bars, I had Ralrek, who was still only just separating himself from being Hell's asshole at that time. Still, being forced to share space with an asshole is better than sharing with only yourself and the voices in your head, of which had begun to hang around more often. After a few days, I had figured the taint from Azazel's rift would have faded and the voices would have stopped. But the days proved me wrong. The ridiculous company I kept commented at all hours of the day and night.
I never knew when I would hear them. Tainted magical rifts or simply losing my mind, I didn't know, but sanity was on its way out the cell door. At least one of us would be free. If only I had hallucinations to accompany the voices. The party inside my head would be a lot more fun.
Talking to Creed didn't keep me sane. The stupid halberd had entered sleep mode or something. Not a rattle or even a single vibration in all my time since I put it in the brackets. I think it was pouting. Or the brackets were imbued with a nastiness similar to the clamps Marijon had used against me in the Eighth Circle when she became the only demon capable of stealing the halberd.
That thought kept me occupied for a while, let me tell you.
The halberd's attitude might have been attributable to whatever my senses were picking up on in the prison since the moment I was shuffled down the corridor. Unlike the voices, my prickling skin was a constant. Magic was at work here. Which type, I didn't know, but at this point, I didn't care either. I was more agitated by its unwelcome company.
None of the guards who brought my meals seemed inclined or informed enough to educate me on it. Whatever the feeling, it was constant. A spell to tame my halberd. Thankfully, whenever I called to it, Creed would vibrate against the clasps. I was confident it would break them, but I didn't want to push my luck unless I needed to.
At some point in this ambiguous existence, the prison door unlocked and multiple feet slapped against smooth brimstone floor. This was the first time I'd had multiple visitors. I moved to the cell door, pressing my face against the cool iron to look down the hall as far as possible. After a few seconds, a goofy grin split my face.
I had company, and it was company I wanted.
"Zeke!" Bilba shouted, his voice echoing.
"Quiet," the guard said.
"Screw you," Ralrek snapped, striding along with Bilba to reach the cell door first.
"Hey guys. I never thought I'd be so happy to see your ugly asses," I said.
Bilba reached through the iron bars and patted my shoulder. "Good to see you too, Zeke. You're getting fat."
I slapped my flat stomach. "Can you believe they don't have a gym on the premises?"
"Unconscionable," a feminine voice rang out. A familiar voice. A succubus I longed to see.
"You better not have brought me any work," I called.
"Not that you would get any of it done. And if you did, I'd just have to go behind you and correct it," Dialphio said as she stepped into view.
Her emerald eyes, bordered by faint green eyeshadow, sparkled, even here. Even in the murky cell, her auburn hair looked lighter, as if it had lost its vibrancy. Still cut short, she had it styled now in spikes, as if a constant wind blew it back. Shortest of the bunch, Dialphio moved between Bilba and Ralrek, facing the cell door. I was relieved to see how healthy she looked. I had not seen her since my trial after Baghdad. With her presence alone, Dialphio made the world feel a little more sane. Cancer would have liked Dialphio.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," I said.
Dialphio's eyes softened. "As are you, Ezekial." She snapped her head toward the approaching guard. "Hurry. Unlock this door. You've kept him alone long enough."
The guard rushed forward, as if Dialphio was the one who paid his coin. He opened the cell and stepped out of the way. My friends entered. He closed and locked it once more with an apologetic shrug. "Sorry, just procedure."
The four of us spent the next minutes hugging.
Glancing over her shoulder at the guard, Dialphio said, "Are you going to stand there all day?"
He gave her an unblinking look.
"Go!" she said, shooing him with her hands before pointing at the iron bars. "He won't go anywhere, I promise. Give us privacy. You stripped him of enough dignity as it is."
The guard hefted his spear and walked away. The clinking of his armor faded.
Dialphio turned back only after he was out of earshot, a devilish grin on her face. Reaching into her blouse, she paused when her arm was elbow–deep. "You boys might want to look away."
After a moment, she cleared her throat. "It's fine now."